Thursday, 26 November 2015

Cover art for MALAZAN prequel novel

The cover art has been released for Dancer's Lament, the first novel in the Path to Ascendancy series. This is a prequel series to the Malazan Book of the Fallen and charts the rise to power of Kellanved and Dancer, as well as the founding of the Malazan Empire.

The novel will be released on 25 February 2016.

Tuesday, 24 November 2015

Kevin Bacon to relaunch TREMORS franchise

Kevin Bacon is helping to relaunch the Tremors franchise as a TV series. This will mark his first involvement with the franchise since the original film in 1990, which will allow him to Six Degree himself across the same series.

Tremors, objectively one of the Greatest Films Ever Made™, featured the inhabitants of the small town of Perfection being menaced by subterranean "graboids", ferocious burrowing monsters. The original film pitted a cast of characters led by Val McKee (Bacon), Earl Basset (Fred Ward) and Burt Gummer (Michael Gross) against the creatures. Ward would return for the sequel, Tremors 2: Aftershocks (1996) but only Gummer would go on to appear in every appearance of the franchise, which to date comprises five films and a short-lived 2003 TV series.

The new TV series will apparently reboot and reintroduce the franchise, but with Bacon reprising the role of Val McKee 25+ years after the original film, it would appear to be set in the same continuity. How many other actors or characters would reprise their roles is unknown.

Monday, 23 November 2015

A History of Epic Fantasy - Part 28

Epic fantasy has been the most commercially popular strand of the fantastical genre, but it has certainly come in for criticism from more literary quarters. In the late 1970s Michael Moorcock dismissed the genre as being simply "Epic Pooh" (an overwrought version of children's stories like Winnie the Pooh) and M. John Harrison (author of the Viriconium sequence of surreal fantasies) decried the genre for the "clomping foot of nerdism" in its overreliance on worldbuilding and trying to rationalise what should remain irrational. The genre has also been criticised for often descending into being "Medieval Europe with Dragons" rather than trying to be something weirder and more thought-provoking. Not everyone from the literary end of the spectrum agrees with this - Gene Wolfe is a huge Tolkien fan, for example - but it's certainly a point of view with some significant adherents.

Starting in the 1990s, fantasy began to move in slightly odder directions less reliant on dragons and magic and pseudomedieval Europe. Garry Kilworth employing Polynesian mythology (complete with a vast number of tiny gods and some very strange customs) in his Navigator Kings trilogy can be seen as part of this, as can some of the more bizarre concepts in works by Steven Erikson and Glen Cook. But it took a series of novels published between 2000 and 2006 to really ramp up these elements. This period became known as the New Weird.

Perdido Street Station & The Scar

Published in 2000, Perdido Street Station was the second novel by British author China Miéville. His first novel, King Rat (1998), had been an urban fantasy indebted to the likes of Neil Gaiman's Neverwhere (1996), but Perdido Street Station was something different. It was set in the sprawling, uncertain cityscape of New Crobuzon, a city of squalor and beauty where insects make art and the government dines the ambassadors of hell. Cactii-people live and trade alongside the inhabitants of a thousand lands and the city is linked by elevated railway lines carrying souls to work and destinies and deaths. It is part steampunk, part urban fantasy, part horror and part Alien.

Perdido Street Station is a remarkable novel, utterly beautifully written and powered by an imagination almost unmatched in the modern fantasy genre. The city of New Crobuzon lives and breathes in a way few fantasy metropoles ever achieve. Miéville populates his city with strange people but also gives them a feeling of how they live and work day-to-day. New Crobuzon is both weird and workable. Oddly, despite Harrison's criticisms of traditional fantasy and lauding (and some might say foreshadowing) of the New Weird, this works mainly because Miéville invests strongly in worldbuilding, making the city work and feel real. It even first saw light in a home roleplaying campaign which Miéville used to develop the location before trying to realise it in prose.

If Perdido Street Station works as a fantastic piece of atmosphere and mood, it's less successful in working as a structured novel, as the basic plot boils down to a bug hunt for a monster. It's the incidents along the way and the people the reader meets that makes the book so fantastic. It falls to the successor (not a true sequel), The Scar (2002), to really sing on every level. This book starts off as a travelogue, with the core characters departing New Crobuzon in search of the mysterious floating city of Armada, located somewhere in the vast ocean. As the book continues it invokes elements of Moby Dick whilst also remaining very much its own beast. The story is far more original and strange than Perdido Street Station, the characters more vivid and the situations more bizarre whilst also remaining a compelling read. It's Miéville's masterpiece.

Miéville has only released one novel since set in the same world of Bas-Lag, namely the excellent Iron Council (2004), but he has explored other worlds and settings in his fiction. Un Lun Dun (2007) and Kraken (2010) are urban fantasies set in London, Embassytown (2011) is science fiction flavoured by the New Weird and Railsea (2012) is set on a world where the ocean has been replaced by an endless landscape of train tracks. The Tain (2002) is a post-apocalyptic tale. His most successful post-Bas-Lag novel is The City and the City (2009), a weird tale that features one city split into two parallel realities where the people of one side can see those of the rest but cannot interact with them on fear of abduction by a supernatural force. Miéville will publish two novels in 2016, This Census-Taker and The Last Days of New Paris, but it appears that a return to Bas-Lag is not in the cards for the near future.

The Year of Our War

Published in 2004, The Year of Our War is noted for its vivid (and occasionally hallucinogenic) prose and its success in taking the old fantasy standby - a civilisation defended by some huge threat by a massive wall - and turning it on its head. The enemy this time is a race of insects, but humanity is defended by a race of super-powered immortals who serve as rulers and defenders and generals. The weirdness is generated by Jant, the main protagonist, who is a drug-addict and sometimes wastrel but also someone who can visit a supernatural realm of the undead where he can gain vital clues about the enemy. The immortals are riven by internal dissent, politics and love feuds that sometimes distract them from the threat that looms in the north. It is a strange and odd book that, as with Miéville, actually features some pretty robust worldbuilding and well-paced plot developments.

This was the first book in The Castle Series, and was followed by No Present Like Time (2005) and The Modern World (2007). Steph Swainston has since published a prequel, Above the Snowline (2010). However, she also vocally criticised the modern requirement by publishers and the marketplace for authors to engage in social media, marketing and networking, feeling this took too much time away from writing. She has since taken up a day job in chemistry, but continues to write a fifth book in the series in her own time.

Other Works of the Weird

After Miéville, the most successful author of the New Weird is Jeff VanderMeer (he even co-edited an anthology called The New Weird in 2007). His novels and short stories set in the fantastical city of Ambergis - Cities of Saints and Madmen (2001), Shriek: An Afterword (2006) and Finch (2009) - proved both popular and influential, as did Veniss Underground (2003), set in a different milieu but likewise bizarre and strange. His most recent major work is the Southern Reach Trilogy, an original take on the haunted lighthouse trope.

The most surprising book of the period is K.J. Bishop's The Etched City (2003), mainly because the author has not so far followed it up with any other work. Although not as well known as Miéville, Swainston and VanderMeer, Bishop's book may be the most succinct summing-up of the subgenre of the bizarre.

The New Weird never really went away, but it did start to drift into other forms of fantasy. Alan Campbell's superb Scar Night (2006) brings together the New Weird with elements of urban fantasy. It is somewhat let down by its less ambitious sequels, Iron Angel (2008) and the disappointing God of Clocks (2009), which relies on a retcon ending. Mark Charan Newton's Legends of the Red Sun series (starting with Nights of Villjamur in 2009) may be seen as an attempt to merge the New Weird with the Dying Earth subgenre popularised by Jack Vance in 1950. It is a strong and original voice, hampered by a far too-rushed conclusion.

More recently the New Weird has kind of merged into fantasy as a whole. Francis Knight's Rojan Dizon trilogy (starting with 2013's Fade to Black) feels like it should be New Weird, set as it is in a towering vertical city inside a mountain, but it is played more straight as a standard urban fantasy with epic undertones. Luke Scull's Grim Company trilogy is much more set in a post-New Grim sword and sorcery world, but the immortal god-sorcerers and their ability to warp reality results in strange and bizarre consequences (and otherwise sets his work aside from the likes of Joe Abercrombie, to whom he shares superficial similarities).

As the 2000s started in earnest, traditional epic fantasy remained popular but perhaps less so that in the previous decade. Publishers looked for different kinds of fantasy, from the baroque oddness of Miéville to the everything-and-the-kitchen-sink fantasy of Steven Erikson, but if there was one direction that epic fantasy was taking it was into darker territories, where philosophy and morality and ideologies were entwined and complicated, resulting in some of the most interesting - but also controversial - works published in the history of the genre.

R. Scott Bakker update

R. Scott Bakker has provided an update on his forthcoming books. He has confirmed that the final book in the Aspect-Emperor series has been split, as was anticipated from Overlook Press's schedules a few weeks ago.

The first of the two books, The Great Ordeal, will be published in July 2016. The second, The Unholy Consult, will be published at some point in 2017. Apparently the expansion of the series from three to four volumes necessitated a redrawing of the some of the contracts.

In previous comments, Bakker confirmed that his intention is still to write a further duology in the world but that, at a push, the series can end with The Unholy Consult.

First episode of THE EXPANSE released

SyFy have debuted the first episode of The Expanse online. You can watch it via the link below.

THE EXPANSE Full Episode | The Search Begins from "Dulcinea"The Expanse digital premiere is here. WATCH NOW.
Posted by The Expanse on Sunday, 22 November 2015

The Expanse is based on the novel series of the same name by Ty Franck and Daniel Abraham (writing as James S.A. Corey). The remaining nine episodes of the first season will start airing in the USA in mid-December. The above link works in the UK and US, and hopefully other territories as well.

Sunday, 15 November 2015

A History of Epic Fantasy - Part 27

Summing up what epic fantasy is and is not is difficult. The barest tropes of the genre - big armies, travelogues, magic - can be used to define it, but it always feels like it's describing the symptoms and not the causes of why people write the genre, and why people read it. One potential definition is that epic fantasy is the story of big events channelled through the eyes of a small number of well-defined characters whom the audience invests in.

Or to put it another way, we may be interested in Middle-earth as a place and a collection of societies, but we only get interested in it through the actions of characters we empathise with: Bilbo, Frodo, Gandalf, Gollum etc. The same with Westeros. The war for the Iron Throne is irrelevant if the reader does not care about Ned Stark or Tyrion Lannister or Daenerys Targaryen. Arguably epic fantasy can go off the rails when the scope balloons and so many characters are brought in that the tension and pace can become diffuse, a problem struggled with by many of even the best and most critically lauded authors in the genre. This tension between the macro and micro-scale, between the personal stories of characters we love and the epic struggle of clashing armies and gods and philosophies, arguably lies at the core of the appeal of epic fantasy and how different authors approach it can determine their success. It often feels like fantasy authors, when in doubt, move in favour of the massive, epic scale and throw so many new ideas, new characters and new magic systems into their narratives that they can risk overload or crashing the momentum of their series.

In 1995 a novel was published which firmly tilted in the opposite direction, where big things happened but the perspective was tightly limited (at least for most of the books). This gave rise to one of the biggest-selling, most critically lauded and respected fantasy series of the last fifteen years: The Realm of the Elderlings mega-sequence by Robin Hob.

Assassin's Apprentice & Ship of Magic

Of course, it didn't start out that way. Margaret Astrid Lindholm Ogden had published her very first novel, Harpy's Flight in 1983. By the early 1990s she'd been writing novels for ten years and had released ten books in the adventure fantasy field (and also a single SF novel, Alien Earth). These had been released under pen-name, Megan Lindholm. In July 1993 she concluded a deal with Bantam for three further books, this time an epic fantasy trilogy. The first volume at this point had the working title Chivalry's Bastard.

By the time the book was completed and delivered, the author and her publisher agreed it was a very different kind of novel for her. It was longer, more complex and much more adult. It was decided to remarket the novel as coming from a new author. She picked the name "Robin Hobb" after discovering that the "H" row was often on a perfect eyeline for an adult browsing the shelves in a bookstore.

Retitled Assassin's Apprentice, the novel was released in April 1995 and was immediately successful. Two heavyweight fantasy artists - Michael Whelan in the United States and John Howe in the United Kingdom - provided excellent covers. Reviews were very strong. The book was fairly traditional, focusing on the character of Fitz, the bastard son of the king's heir who is reluctantly allowed to live in the royal household but finds himself at something of a loose end. He is trained by the royal assassin, Chade, and uncovers political intrigue with his half-uncle Regal seeking to usurp the throne, the Six Duchies facing attacks by the mysterious Outislanders and relations with the Mountain Kingdom being strained. Royal Assassin (1996) and Assassin's Quest (1997) continue and resolve these issues, the three books together forming The Farseer Trilogy.

However, although the books feature political intrigue, two magic systems (the Skill and the Wit) and occasional bouts of violence, their popularity rested on a series of relationships: between Fitz and his wolf, Nighteyes; between Fitz and his mentor Chade, and his uncle Verity; and, most tantalisingly, between Fitz and the highly enigmatic Fool. The trilogy ended on a positive note, but Fitz did not seem to have truly found happiness at its conclusion.

Robin Hobb went on to write The Liveship Traders (1998-2000), a further trilogy set in the same world but along the coast of the continent to the south. This trilogy focuses on the families of Bingtown, who have developed the ability to carve ships controlled by sentient figureheads. Initially the books revolve around the battle within a family for ownership of the liveship Vivacia, but as the narrative unfolds the scope expands. Unlike the Farseer series, which was written in first-person, Liveship is written from a more traditional third-person viewpoint and encompasses a wide range of characters living in different locales. This trilogy features more compelling and original worldbuilding than Farseer, which is very traditional, but also is notable for giving the primary villain a journey and arc of his own that is understandable and sympathetic. Indeed, Hobb arguably is too successful in making Kennit a relatable figure and the decision to have him revert to pure villainy by becoming a rapist feels heavy-handed. But overall The Liveship Traders is as strong and readable a series as its forebear, benefiting from the shift in location and theme.

Hobb returned to Fitz's story in The Tawny Man (2001-03), which followed up on his adventures fifteen years after the events of Farseer. More intriguingly, it touched on events in The Liveship Traders and started pulling together story threads revolving around the Liveships, sea serpents, dragons and the extinct race of mysterious Elderlings, providing a larger-scaled and more mythic backdrop for the series. However, the focus remained resolutely on the key characters.

Hobb took a break from Fitz's world to write the Shaman's Crossing trilogy (2005-08), set on a completely different world with gunpowder. Although well-regarded, it wasn't as successful critically as her Elderling mega-series. She subsequently returned to the setting of the Rain Wilds, touched on in both the Farseer and Liveship story strands, for a four-volume series expanding on that region, The Rain Wild Chronicles (2009-13). This led Hobb to write Fitz and the Fool (2014-17, est), a new trilogy continuing (and perhaps wrapping up) the story of Fitz and his enigmatic friend, now emerging as arguably the central figure of the entire saga.

The Robin Hobb books feature all the hallmarks of epic fantasy, but her prose and dialogue style are a marked improvement over much of the genre and her focus on character over the furniture of the setting is highly laudable. Her approach is also hugely appealing on a wide level. Her books were Harper Voyager's biggest-selling series until A Song of Ice and Fire overtook them in the early 2000s, and she has enormous respect from her peers. Authors as different as George R.R. Martin and Steven Erikson are big fans, and The Telegraph even called the first book of the Fitz and the Fool sequence "High art." If the books have a weakness it may be a traditional one: excessive verbiage with the streamlined opening volumes of both Farseer and The Liveship Traders being dwarfed by the concluding volumes of each trilogy (each almost double the size of the first), and the Rain Wild Chronicles expanding almost uncontrollably from a duology to a four-volume series.

But at her best Robin Hobb is one of the most human and humane writers in the field, writing intelligently and with clarity about people and what makes them tick, whilst also remembering to throw in the requisite fantasy cool stuff like dragons and sentient sailing ships.

By the end of the 1990s the genre's success appeared secured through the arrival and establishing of a new breed of epic fantasy authors writing with greater skill and interest in characters and people, whilst also being more willing to delve into the darker side of the genre. But a parallel subset of fantasy was also developing which wanted to turn over all the rules and do something really different. Really...weird.

Thursday, 12 November 2015

SYSTEM SHOCK remake announced, sequel teased

A video game development studio by the name of Night Dive have acquired the full rights to the System Shock IP. Night Dive recently masterminded the re-release of System Shock 2 and have now confirmed that a "full remake" of the original game is underway.

Night Dive have also acquired the property in its totality, so can also begin planning a System Shock 3 if they wish. However, they admit this is beyond their current scope and would have to partner up with another company to undertake that project.

System Shock (1994) was a first-person science fiction roleplaying game, set on a space station. The player controls a hacker who becomes embroiled in the machinations of a devious, sentient AI called SHODAN. It was created by Looking Glass Studios under the supervision of the legendary Warren Spector (who later created Deus Ex), shortly after the same team had completed work on Ultima Underworld II. System Shock, like the Ultima Underworld games, was praised for bringing the immersive 3D viewpoint of action games like Doom but creating a more thoughtful, intelligent RPG around it.

In 1999 Looking Glass Studios and Irrational Games (headed by Ken Levine) collaborated on System Shock 2. This was a more sophisticated game in terms of graphics, interface and the amount of freedom it gave the player to pursue their own goals. It frequently appears on "Best Games of All Time" lists and it is considered extremely influential on later RPG design. SHODAN, the evil (kind of) antagonist AI character, was a key inspiration for the similar (but more humorous) AI character GLaDOS in Portal and Portal 2System Shock 2 came out very close to Deus Ex, which itself had been heavily influenced by the original System Shock.

Arguably the biggest legacy of the two games was that in 2007 Irrational Games would go on to make a "spiritual sequel" to the games, which went on to become a massive, international hit by the name of BioShock. It was followed by BioShock 2 (2010) and BioShock Infinite (2013). However, some critics cite System Shock 2 (which a true RPG, not a FPS like the BioShock franchise) as being superior for giving the player much greater control and choice in the narrative.

Tuesday, 10 November 2015

A History of Epic Fantasy - Part 26

In 1981 two Canadian students began playing roleplaying games at college, using the Dungeons and Dragons rules. They didn't like them, so started playing around and changing the rules. They found that the traditional gameplay style - kill monsters for loot - was a bit simplistic, and pondered who these monsters were, the importance of character backstories and that crafting a campaign as a tragedy was even more satisfying than crafting one as a heroic and stirring tale of victory. In 1986 they switched to the GURPS roleplaying system by Steve Jackson and began consolidating the world in which their campaigns were set, a world dominated by numerous ancient races and one newly-raised human nation known as the Malazan Empire.

"Come at me, bro. Oh, you are. Carry on."

Steve Rune Lundin and Ian Cameron Esslemont both studied archaeology and anthrapology at university and, like many in their twenties in the early 1980s, get embroiled in roleplaying games. They co-developed a world between them, one that eschewed D&D's Vancian magic system and standard races in favour of new civilisations. Some of these were still familiar, such as the elf-like, immortal Tiste divided into many bickering sub-races, but some were more unusual, such as K'Chain Che'Malle. These were, effectively, sentient dinosaurs who used a form of magic based around gravity. More interesting was that the world featured actual scientific evolution, with several distinct life-cycles of each race existing over a period of hundreds of thousands of years, and a highly complex magic system based around the manipulation of other universes (or "warrens").

By 1987 the world had grown complex and deep enough that the two friends felt confident enough to start writing fiction based on it. Esslemont was first off the blocks, penning the short novel Night of Knives about the apparent assassination of the Malazan Emperor on one stormy night in Malaz City. It failed to sell, but emboldened by the earlier book he wrote a much longer novel about the civil war that would envelop the empire some years later, Return of the Crimson Guard. That also failed to sell. For his part, Steve Lundin developed a comedy movie script based around the misadventures of the regulars at the Phoenix Inn in the city of Darujhistan. This also failed to sell. Lundin then rewrote the movie script as a novel, in which the Phoenix Inn Regulars play only a small role, called Gardens of the Moon, completing this in 1991. This also failed to sell.

Perhaps sensing a developing pattern, the two writers went on to other things. They studied, taught and worked in many other countries, wrote other things, got married and had lives. And maybe the Malazan stories would have stayed in the box if it hadn't been for Steve Lundin's tenacity. In 1998 he published a mainstream novel about some boys finding a dead body. This River Awakens was only a modest success, but it got Lundin some attention and an agent. He shopped Gardens of the Moon around in the UK and found a market eager to find the next Robert Jordan or Terry Goodkind. Bantam Press and Gollancz, the SFF imprint of Orion Books, ended up in a brief bidding war over the book and its possible sequels. This resulted in Lundin getting a massive advance for £675,000 (almost $900,000 in 1998 money), a then-record for a debut fantasy author.

To present Lundin as a new and fresh author, it was decided to give him a pen-name. He chose the name "Steven Erikson", based on family names, but it also helped as it would likely place his name next to Ian Esslemont's, should the latter's own books ever take off.

"We must withdraw! We cannot repel firepower of that magnitude!"

Gardens of the Moon & Deadhouse Gates

Released in 1999, Gardens of the Moon attracted strong critical reviews. Fantasy authors like J.V. Jones and Stephen Donaldson praised the novel, with authors in particular impressed by Lundin's bravery in jumping straight into the action with no scene-setting or exposition. Readers were noticeably cooler on the lack of hand-holding or spoon-feeding in the opening of the novel: the book did well, but it didn't have the phenomenal slaes required to pay back the immense advance the author had received.

There was also a creative crisis behind the scenes: Lundin had started working on the second novel in the series, provisionally entitled Memories of Ice which was a straight sequel to Gardens, picking up with the same characters a few months later. Halfway through the novel and with no backups to hand, his computer suffered a catastrophic failure and over a hundred thousand words of material went up in smoke. The prospect of starting again proved too much, so he picked up a story thread he'd been holding in reserve. He moved over to a storyline unfolding on another continent with a completely different set of characters and events. It was this novel, Deadhouse Gates, that he delivered to his editors as the second volume of the series, to their possible confusion.

This unorthodox storytelling approach worked wonders. It allowed readers to start with either Gardens or Deadhouse as the first volume of the series, it painted a much larger, more vivid picture of the world and it showed that this wasn't going to be another ongoing endless series with an interminable metaplot. Lundin had signed up for ten volumes with Bantam, but each novel in the series was going to stand alone with some characters and subplots continuing, but not the main storyline. For a genre whose longest-running series have displayed a repeated tendency to get bogged down in structural issues, this seemed to be a wise approach and a way of avoiding those issues.

Gardens of the Moon is set on the continent of Genabackis, where the Malazan Empire is trying to secure the entire landmass in the name of the Empress Laseen. Standing against them is a rough and barely-coherent alliance consisting of the forces of the Warlord Caladan Brood, mercenaries such as the barking mad Mott Irregulars and the pride-wounded Crimson Guard, and an enigmatic group of powerful Tiste Andii led by the legendary god-sorcerer Anomander Rake. The two armies clash outside - and the skies above - the city of Pale. The Malazans win the resulting battle but only at an extreme cost in lives. Unable to muster the forces for another assault on the next city, Darujhistan to the south, the Malazans infiltrate their elite sapper unit, the Bridgeburners, into the city with orders to bring down its defences from within. At the same time, the regulars at a tavern in Darujhistan, the Phoenix Inn, are drawn into a complicated plot involving inter-noble conspiracies, unusual creatures in the streets and an archaeological dig outside the city which, of course, all goes a bit wrong.

As openings go, it's a strong one, mixing the city-based adventuring hijinks of Fritz Leiber with the vast, epic scope of Robert Jordan. Lundin's own strongest inspirations were Stephen Donaldson, whose moody introspection can be found in Lundin's characterisation, and Glen Cook, whose lean, sparse prose, utterly fantastic naming conventions and murky morality find their descendants in the Bridgeburners and the wizards (both scheming and wise) of the setting. However, Gardens of the Moon is also bitty and inconsistent, whirling through settings and locations with little rhyme or reason for the first couple of hundred pages until it settles down in Darujhistan with its more focused storytelling. Those crazy opening chapters may have featured an impressive magical battle sequence but they also featured wizards reincarnated as sentient puppets, massive murderous hounds whose significance is completely unclear and a lot of time spent with two characters who appear to be the main protagonists until they both die for no readily explicable reason just a few chapters in (one gets better because reasons and the other amalgamates into a gestalt magical superentity of unclear purpose; are you taking notes?). Luckily the book settles down for some awesome scheming, politicking, adventuring, bed-hopping and rooftop sword fighting, with lots of scenes where badass mages stare moodily out of the window and portend portentously. Then the final battle takes place in which Godzilla briefly shows up before being captured by a magical sentient house that literally grows out of nowhere.


Deadhouse Gates, on the other hand, has a more straightforward story. For decades, the desert continent of Seven Cities has been ruled by the Malazans. With the Malazan Empire's armies fighting on Genabackis, missing on the continent of Korel far to the south or having to police increasingly unruly parts of the home continent of Quon Tali, the natives of Seven Cities have begun plotting a rebellion, the Whirlwind. The arrival of a prophesied seer unleashes the uprising. A detachment of the Malazan Army has to march some 1,500 miles through hard terrain, escorting tens of thousands of refugees and facing attack all along the way. A normal Malazan unit would stand no chance, but this is the 7th Army, commanded by Coltaine, war leader of the Crow Clan of the Wickan tribes. Coltaine leads his refugees on the epic journey that will become known in legend as the Chain of Dogs. At the same time, several Malazans journey to the Holy Desert Raraku in search for the mysterious Sha'ik and an immortal amnesiac journeys out of the wastelands with a concerned companion trying to guard him from his own past. There's also a load of shapeshifters up to no good, and a buried jade statue which someone unwisely starts messing around with an ends up causing a god to faceplant into the mortal world, with long-lasting ramifications.

Gardens of the Moon is a fun - if completely barking mad - novel but Deadhouse Gates is brilliant, being a much deeper, darker and more human book. Threads of heroism and tragedy wind their way through the narrative until you can't tell which is which any more, building up to one of epic fantasy's few genuinely tearjerking endings. The Chain of Dogs has all the themes, drama and complexity of the modern Battlestar Galactica, recast in a fantasy environment and with a conclusion that notably does not suck. And some of the weird magic stuff going on in the background proves to be immensely important to the endgame of the series, and works on a whole new level when reread later on. Gardens of the Moon is good, but Deadhouse Gates is one of the very finest epic fantasy novels ever written.

A similar description can be applied to the third book in the series, Memories of Ice (which Lundin eventually did rewrite and finish), which addresses deeper questions of morality, destiny and culpability against the backdrop of a confrontation with an enemy utterly lacking in remorse or humanity. After Memories of Ice the series becomes arguably a little more defuse. The author's prose skills increase and his interest in thematic development means that the latter volumes of the series, particularly the conceptually bold eighth volume, Toll the Hounds, become close to capital-L Literature. However, the saga does risk running out of narrative energy, with brilliant action sequences and moments of fine characterisation becoming separated by increasingly lengthy interludes of historical or thematic introspection that risk sapping the life from the books. Lundin is such a good writer that this risk almost never materialises, but it teeters on it too often for some tastes.

Still, the plot threads do come together satisfyingly in the tenth volume, The Crippled God, which does unexpectedly pull together and pay off an enormous number of plot threads. And Lundin's novels by this point had become enhanced by the arrival of Ian Esslemont's own supporting volumes.

Night of Knives & Return of the Crimson Guard

Ian Esslemont's Night of Knives was finally released in 2004, followed up by Return of the Crimson Guard in 2007. The two books were released almost twenty years after they were written, although both had been heavily edited and re-written to fit in with the Erikson novels. The publishers were wary of the linked setting of the two writers, so it was decided that Esslemont's books would focus on different areas of the Malazan world. The two works would support one another but would be completely readable on their own.

Night of Knives is a short book which focuses on Malaz Island, where the Empire was born, the assassination of the Emperor Kellanved and the ascencsion of Laseen, all against the backdrop of the harbour being threatened by the sinister Stormriders, supernatural entities that infest the seas between Malaz and the rarely-visited southern continent of Korel. It's good, but a little too vague in what's going own.

Return of the Crimson Guard is a much bigger novel, focusing as it does on the aftermath of the events of Deadhouse Gates and the following books with the eruption of a full-blown civil war in the Malazan heartlands. The Crimson Guard, whom the Malazans drove from the Quon Tali continent generations ago, return (hence the title) and all sorts of shenanigans ensue. There are huge battles, magical confrontations and lots of mysteries are explored and explained.

Esslemont is not as nuanced an author as Lundin, lacking the latter's sheer power of prose and ability to conjure together a tragic climax. But he's still a talented writer with a good line in characterisation and humour. His books are more conventional, but also more identifiable. In the core Malazan novels it's hard to get a feel for how the everyday person who isn't a millennia-old superbeing gets along, but Esslemont manages to get that down pat. His version of the world may be less epic, but it's almost more relatable and more personal. Not to say that Major Important Stuff doesn't happen in his books, but when it does it feels a little more in the human league of things. Esslemont is also good at bringing to life remote parts of the world, such as the oft-mentioned but never-seen (in the Erikson books) continents of Koral, Jacuruku and Assail.

As of 2015, the two authors have published seventeen novels: ten volumes of The Malazan Book of the Fallen by Steven Erikson and six of The Novels of the Malazan Empire by Ian Cameron Esslemont. Erikson has also published Forge of Darkness, the opening volume of a prequel trilogy (the second volume follows in 2016), with a sequel trilogy to the main series focusing on the fan-favourite character of Karsa Orlong to follow. In 2016 Esslemont will also begin publishing a prequel series examining the founding of the Malazan Empire in exacting detail. Between them they have crafted one of epic fantasy's most exciting, interesting and different fantasy worlds. Although both authors have flaws, one thing is certain: they have created the single most ambitious work of epic fantasy ever conceived, and if they haven't quite succeeded in achieving all of those ambitious they have nevertheless created something extraordinary, and a series that should be required reading in the genre for showing the scope and scale of what the genre can be when it tries.

The Malazan series is epic fantasy at its biggest, more baroque and most widescreen, with vast armies, intimidating displays of magic and dozens of nonhuman races. But, shortly after Lundin began writing Gardens of the Moon, another fantasy mega-series began. This series started quietly, almost too quietly, with the story of a young boy who becomes the apprentice to an assassin in the employ of a king. And twenty years later this series would come full circle and conclude with that apprentice holding the fate of his world in his hands.

Sunday, 8 November 2015

Fallout Franchise Familiariser

On Tuesday, Bethesda Softworks will release the computer roleplaying game Fallout 4. The previous games in the series have sold tens of millions of copies, and Fallout 4 will likely be battling with Star Wars: Battlefront and Call of Duty: Black Ops III for the title of biggest-selling game of the year. A lot of people are going to be talking about it, but what if you have no idea what the hell the thing is about? Time for a Franchise Familiariser course.

Vault Boy is the emblem of Vault-Tec, the corporation that built the vaults designed to protect humanity from nuclear war.

Fallout is a video game series set in the aftermath of the Great War, a nuclear exchange between the United States and China which utterly destroyed civilisation as we know it. In the backstory to the games this apocalypse took place on 23 October 2077. The original Fallout takes place almost a century later in 2161. The series then jumped forwards another hundred years, with Fallouts 2 to 4 taking place between 2241 and 2287.

Fallout also takes place in an alternate timeline, one where transistor and microchip technology developed a lot later than it did in our world and nuclear power was embraced much more enthusiastically. Thus, whilst Fallout is set in a post-apocalyptic future it also channels the visual design and spirit of a lot of 1950s and 1960s pulp sci-fi novels and films, a design theme known as retrofuturism (sadly, my term "Americanapunk" failed to catch on).

Apart from Fallout 2 and New Vegas, each of the core Fallout games starts with your character in a Vault, one of 122 different, massive underground facilities designed to protect people from the radiation outside. For different reasons, your character has to leave the Vault and explore the outside world for some purpose. This usually leads into conflicts with the various factions that have emerged in the wake of the nuclear war, with the player's character having a decisive role to play in events. All five main games take place in the same continuity and some characters appear in more than one game, but each title is designed to stand alone with only light references to the events of the other games.

The Fallout franchise consists solely of a series of video games. The first two were developed by the internal development studio at Interplay (this studio was named Black Isle whilst working on Fallout 2). Fallout 3 and 4 were made by Bethesda Game Studios. Fallout: New Vegas was outsourced by Bethesda to Obsidian Entertainment, the successor studio to Black Isle after Interplay went bust. The two development teams have adopted different focuses for the games, with Black Isle/Obsidian focusing on the American West and Bethesda so far focusing on the east coast of the former United States.

There are no novels, comics or other material set in the Fallout universe, slightly unusually, although there are some art books and other "behind the scenes" materials that have been released.

The world as it stands in the latter part of the 23rd Century, two centuries after the Great War.

The Fallout canon consists of eight video games, five of which are considered part of the "core canon" and another three are spin-offs of debatable status.

The core canon consists of:
  • Fallout (1997)
  • Fallout 2 (1998)
  • Fallout 3 (2008)
  • Five expansions to Fallout 3: Operation Anchorage, The Pitt, Broken Steel, Point Lookout and Mothership Zeta (all 2009)
  • Fallout: New Vegas (2010)
  • Four expansions to New Vegas: Dead Money, Honest Hearts, Old World Blues and Lonesome Road (all 2011)
  • Fallout 4 (2015)
  • A likely series of expansions to Fallout 4, to follow in 2016-17
The series also has three side or spin-off games, the official and canon status of which have been disputed:
  • Fallout Tactics: Brotherhood of Steel (2001)
  • Fallout: Brotherhood of Steel (2004)
  • Fallout Shelter (2015)
Although unrelated in terms of setting, canon, characters or fiction, the Fallout franchise developed out of an earlier game series known as Wasteland. Wasteland (1988) and especially Wasteland 2 (2014) may therefore be of interest to players who are fond of the post-apocalyptic setting.

One of the primary inspirations for the Fallout series is the movie A Boy and His Dog, reflected in the iconography of the games.

Fallout's timeline diverges from our own after 1945 and the end of World War II. The transistor was not developed as it was in our history and human technology continued to favour big, bulky designs. The Soviet Union did not collapse as it did not in our world and China did not adopt free market reforms after the 1970s, continuing to be an oppressive Communist state.

By the mid-21st Century the world had become gripped in a desperate energy crisis. The United States adjusted to this by creating small nuclear power generators and even fusion generators to power everything from cars to homes to aircraft. However, this process was slow and the country's reliance on oil remained high. In 2052 these strains resulted in the Resource Wars, with countries in Europe and Asia invading the Middle-East to claim the last remaining oil resources on the Eurasian continent. The result was a bloodbath which resulted in the first use of nuclear weapons on the battlefield in a century. The United Nations was powerless to intervene and the body was disbanded on 26 July 2052. In 2056, Tel Aviv was destroyed in a nuclear exchange between regional powers.

The United States stayed out of this conflict, choosing instead to develop the final oilfields in North America, located under Alaska. Immense pipelines were built and fortified, with the United States deploying enormous military resources to defend Alaska. This led to tensions with Canada, with both the pipeline and transport links running through Canadian territory to the fury of several Canadian nationalist movements. The nuking of Tel Aviv also sparked fears in the United States of a full-scale war.

The Battle of Anchorage in late 2076/early 2077 broke the back of the Chinese invasion of Alaska.

The Vault-Tec Corporation was founded to address this issue, and over the next twenty years they constructed 122 huge Vaults in various parts of the country. The aim was to provide shelter and food for anyone who could reach them in time. However, with an American population of approximately 400 million the Vaults were woefully inadequate to help everyone. In reality the United States government did not believe that a nuclear war was likely, so with Vault-Tec's cooperation developed the shelters also as social conditioning experiments.

In 2066 China launched a full-scale invasion of Alaska in an attempt to seize the pipeline. The Americans resisted the initial attack but soon fell into a deadly war of attrition. The Chinese numbers were overwhelming, but American technology and resources proved superior. In 2074 the United States outflanked the invading armies and landed troops on the Chinese mainland, opening a second front in the war. At the same time, more confident in securing the oil pipeline and in its transfer to fusion power, the United States walked away from peace talks designed to end the crisis. In 2075 the USA formally annexed Canada and the following year deployed the formidable and iconic T-51b Power Armour, giving its troops a formidable advantage on the battlefield. The Chinese forces in both Alaska and at home began to collapse, drained of fuel and unable to combat the new technology.

The United States appeared to be on the verge of victory, but only at a terrible cost: the country had become more militarised, with the deployment of military robots, biological weapons and devastating laser and plasma-based weaponry. Civil rights riots had broken out in several cities, only to be put down with terrifying, lethal force. Some American military units had rebelled when ordered to fire on civilians. Civil war appeared possible, even as the Chinese faced total defeat.

The Great War on 23 October 2077 ended human civilisation over the course of approximately two hours.

On 23 October 2077 the Great War took place. It lasted only hours. It remains unknown who launched the first ICBM: the increasingly desperate Chinese, facing defeat at home and overseas; the American government, forced into desperation by the imminent collapse of social order at home; or other, unknown forces. What is known is that by the end of the day the entire world had been wracked by multiple, mass-megaton nuclear explosions, human civilisation had effectively ended and a terrible nuclear winter had begun. 95%+ of the human race was wiped out, with the majority of the survivors being those in government shelters, or the lucky few tens of thousands who managed to get into the vaults before (or as, in some cases) the bombs fell. The only American city to survive largely intact was Las Vegas, as a wealthy (and fortuitously paranoid) industrialist living in the city, Robert House, had equipped the city with point-defence lasers and satellite-based countermeasures which scrambled the Chinese warheads on their way to the city.

In the aftermath of the atomic holocaust, most of the world suffered a devastating nuclear winter. Poisoned, radioactive rain wiped out a large number of animals and humans who survived the initial detonations. The radiation either killed people outright or mutated them in bizarre ways. One of the most unexpected consequences was the transformation of some people into "ghouls". Some ghouls were feral and zombie-like, but others were intelligent and reasoning. Ghouls took on a hideous appearance but also appeared to be functionally immortal, with their ageing halting altogether. The radiation also mutated creatures like scorpions into much larger and deadlier versions of their former selves.

Adding to the chaos was the fact that during the war the United States had been experimenting with genetic engineering to help replace troops on the battlefield and greatly increase their strength and stamina. One result of this was the extremely lethal, huge and ferocious creature known as the deathclaw. The initial deathclaw specimens escaped the labs in the wake of the war, made their way into the wilderness and began to breed. Another experiment led to the creation of the Forced Evolutionary Virus (FEV) which would force the evolution of the subjects into a superior form. This led to the creation of the Super Mutants, tall and lumbering humanoids possessing tremendous physical strength. The FEV labs were located in two separate locations, one in Mariposa, California and the other in Washington, D.C. The FEV escaped from both, but due to differing strains they had slightly different effects: in the west the resulting Super Mutants were mostly still reasoning and intelligent, able to cooperate alongside other people, but in the east they became mostly savage and violent creatures, with the smart ones being very rare in comparison.

However, despite the near-total destruction of the world, humanity prevailed. Tiny pockets of survivors avoided starvation, radiation poisoning, gangs of raiders, mutated monsters and despair. They formed communities and survived. They eked out a living in the ruins of the old world, but as more and more time passed they began to build new settlements, form new alliances...and make the same old mistakes.

Released in 1997, Fallout was a roleplaying game viewed from an overhead, isometric viewpoint. The game allowed you to create a character via the SPECIAL (Strength, Perception, Endurance, Charisma, Intelligence, Agility, Luck) system and walk around in real time to talk to people and solve puzzles. When danger threatened, the game switched to a turn-based combat mode which allowed you to target specific body parts on enemies to incapacitate or kill them.

The game was initially developed as a sequel to Wasteland, an RPG created by Interplay and released by Electronic Arts in 1988. It was hugely successful, but Electronic Arts didn't really do anything more with it. Interplay went solo, became a publisher in its own right and tried to buy the Wasteland IP, but EA refused to sell. Fallout was developed instead as a spiritual successor. The alternate timeline setting, single character focus and retrofuturistic art style were deliberately created to differentiate the game from Wasteland. The primary designer on the original Fallout was Tim Cain.

Fallout is set in 2161, eighty-four years after the Great War. The player's character - referred to as the Vault Dweller (their actual name is up to each individual player) - is an inhabitant of Vault 13, located under Mount Whitney in the Sierra Nevada Mountains of eastern California. The vault has ridden out the nuclear war and its aftermath in isolation from the outside world, with several generations growing up inside. The vault's water chip, which is responsible for recycling all water in the facility, fails and the player is tasked by the Vault Overseer with venturing outside to find a replacement. To help him (or her), the Vault Dweller is given some basic equipment and the Pip-Boy 2000, a wrist-mounted computer which contains mapping information, a Geiger counter and a system for keeping track of mission objectives. The Vault Dweller has approximately 150 days to find the water chip or Vault 13 will run out of water and have to be abandoned.

Venturing into the exterior world, the Vault Dweller discovers, to her (or his) surprise that many settlements exist and are thriving, and several factions have formed to control them. These include several raider gangs (the Khans, Jackals and Vipers), the Brotherhood of Steel (a high-tech group obsessed with acquiring technology) and several groups of traders. One of these groups, the Water Merchants, can temporarily supply Vault 13 with water, extending its operating period by 100 days for each caravan that is sent. However, this increased trade exposes the existence of the vault to outsiders, resulting it the vault being attacked 400 days into the game (this happens 500 days into the game if the Water Merchants are not hired to supply the vault).

In order to complete the game, the Vault Dweller has to win the trust of the locals in various towns by solving problems for them. This gives the Dweller experience, allowing them to level up, gain additional funds and equipment and also recruit allies to help them in combat. The most loyal ally is a canine named Dogmeat, who soon becomes an iconic part of the game series (descendants of Dogmeat, or simply namesakes, show up in most games in the series). Eventually the Vault Dweller successfully locates a replacement Water Chip and saves Vault 13. However, in doing so they discover that a mysterious leader known as "the Master" is gathering (and, with the help of a supply of the FEV from Mariposa, expanding) an army of Super Mutants to the west, in Los Angeles, and plans to use them to conquer all of California. The Dweller has to use their newly-acquired skills, gear and allies to mount an assault on Los Angeles and kill the Master.

The game ends on an unusually sombre note. In most endings, the Dweller returns to Vault 13 only to be told that their experiences have changed them and their stories about the outside world would likely lead many to abandon the vault and seek out a new life. As a result, the Dweller is banished. If the Dweller has undertaken a "low karma" play style, by killing innocents or resorting to violence rather than diplomacy, the Dweller can also kill the Overseer. He or she can also join forces with the Master and help them conquer the California wasteland, but both of these endings are non-canon. In a possible homage to The Searchers, the Vault Dweller has to leave their home and head off in search of a new life.

Fallout was extremely well-received when it was released in 1997. The retrofuturistic setting, characters and both the SPECIAL and turn-based combat system were all praised, although the game also got some criticism for being quite tough and unforgiving, as well as some bugs related to how companion characters acted (most notably, if you accidentally gave them a key item the only way to get it back was to pickpocket it from them!).

Fallout 2 entered development almost as soon as work finished on the original game. At this point Interplay were very excited about their new roleplaying games. At the same time they were making Fallout and its sequel they had also partnered with a newly-formed Canadian studio, BioWare, to release some new games based on the Dungeons and Dragons licence. In fact, the licence and BioWare's exceptionally impressive Infinity Engine nearly killed the Fallout games as Interplay wanted to use the engine for a run of in-house games as well. Fortunately, the work done on the original Fallout and the first game's warm reception convinced them to continue development of the sequel. During development the internal studio was renamed Black Isle, and Fallout 2 was the first game released under that soon-to-be-famous logo.

Fallout 2 is very similar to Fallout in appearance and gameplay, although there are slight improvements in graphics and the user interface. The biggest difference is in tone, with Fallout 2 engaging with more adult topics such as prostitution and drug use. The game also poses some harder moral questions. The biggest difference is that whilst Fallout is located a bit more firmly in the post-apocalyptic genre, Fallout 2 examines what happens when societies start emerging from the ashes and begin operating properly. This has been dubbed the post-post apocalyptic subgenre.

Fallout 2 takes place in 2241, eighty years after the events of Fallout. As the game opens, it is explained that the Vault Dweller of the original game established a new settlement called Arroyo north of Vault 13. The settlement prospered for many years, until it was threatened by a drought. The village elder asks one of the villagers, a descendant of the Vault Dweller, to embark on a perilous mission to find a Garden of Eden Construction Kit (GECK), a fabled device capable of terraforming the local landscape into something more habitable. The villager, the "Chosen One" (as with Fallout, their actual name and capabilities are determined by the player), sets out equipped only with a Pip-Boy 2000 and some basic equipment (possibly inherited from the Dweller).

As with the first game, Fallout 2 sees the player visit several distinct locations and become embroiled in local politics, factional squabbles and desperate battles for survival. The greater passage of time from the first game and the war means that society has continued to recover from the Great War and new nation-states have begun to emerge. The first of these to be encountered is the New California Republic, based in Shady Sands. The Chosen One discovers that his ancestor, the Vault Dweller, inspired the founding of the NCR through his heroic ways. The NCR is dedicated to democracy, peace and security. A rival power is also established in the form of the Enclave, which claims continuity from the old pre-war United States government. Unfortunately, that government had become dictatorial, controlling and militaristic towards the end of the Resource Wars and the Enclave has continued to operate in that style.

The player's mission to find the GECK means negotiating missions with several factions before he is able to locate Vault 13, the home of the Vault Dweller. However, he finds the vault abandoned and the GECK missing. Returning him, he discovers that the Enclave have invaded Arroyo and taken everyone prisoner back to their base of operations, an oil rig in the Pacific Ocean. This is also where the survivors from Vault 13 have been taken. Eventually, it is revealed that the Enclave plan to use the FEV to create their own Super Mutant army to assist them in re-conquering North America. The Chosen One stops them by blowing up the oil rig and killing the corrupt President. After the end of the crisis, the survivors from Vault 13 are allowed to settle in Arroyo, which in turn is saved by the use of the GECK to create a lush garden from the surrounding wilderness.

Fallout 2 was well-received on release and was praised for its stronger writing than the first game (it was the first game worked on by the soon-to-be-famous Chris Avellone, who went on to work on Planescape: Torment straight from this game) but criticised for more bugs and a use of humour and darker topics which were felt not to be completely consistent with the tone of the first game. The game was also criticised for some by being too similar to the original. The game was well-received and sold initially well, but it also had the misfortune of coming out just weeks before Baldur's Gate. Baldur's Gate received massive praise and sold enormously well, somewhat overshadowing its label-mate.

With Black Isle working on other games for the foreseeable future, Interplay outsourced development of the next game in the series to an external studio, Micro Forte. It was decided that this game would not be a "proper" Fallout 3, but instead a spin-off that de-emphasised roleplaying and story in favour of a more focused, linear and combat-heavy game. Its full title was Fallout Tactics: Brotherhood of Steel, but the game is almost exclusively referred to now as Fallout Tactics to avoid confusion with the 2004 game Brotherhood of Steel.

The plot has the player take on the role of the Warrior (as usual etc), a new recruit in the Midwest Brotherhood of Steel, based in the ruins of Chicago. The Brotherhood plays a small role in the first two games, but is iconically linked to the franchise due to its use heavy of the T-series of Power Armour, the most iconic armour in the series which appears on the covers of most of the games. The Brotherhood encountered in the first two games is apparently good-intentioned but is also arrogant, believing that only it has has the moral right to use and control advanced pre-war technology to avert a future second apocalypse. The Midwest Brotherhood is different in that it believes in recruiting from outsiders and also forming government and police forces is a good idea.

The game proceeds with the Midwest Brotherhood defeating a local group of "beastlords" (who control deathclaws for use in battle) before commencing a long-running, desperate battle with Super Mutants operating from St. Louis. Eventually they achieve victory, but only because the mutants were suddenly attacked by robots invading from the west. The Brotherhood learns that the robots are under the direction of the Calculator, a computer intelligence located in Vault 0 under Cheyenne Mountain, Colorado. Using a still-operational nuclear warhead, the Brotherhood blast their way into the vault and are able to confront the Calculator. They can destroy it (apparently the canon ending), reprogramme it to operate more beneficially, or help it conquer North America.

Although reasonably well-received as a combat/tactics game, Fallout Tactics was met with some disappointment for not being a full RPG, for some inconsistencies with the pre-existing lore and for its use of modern weapons over the retrofuturistic weapons of the other games, as well as its lack of period music. The game was rushed and under-budget, with Interplay starting to experience financial issues which meant there was limited time for testing and polish. Sales were poor, leading to the cancellation of the planned Fallout Tactics 2. Tactics 2 would have taken place in Florida, which would have been ravaged by an irradiated GECK and turned into a nightmarish landscape of monstrous creatures, opposed by a Brotherhood of Steel chapter that had given up on morality to become as harsh and oppressive as the landscape it was challenging.

Fallout: Tactics is generally regarded as non-canon, although the Midwestern Brotherhood of Steel is mentioned and dismissed as a "rogue unit" in Fallout 3. There are some superficial similarities between Tactics and inXile Entertainment's Wasteland 2, made by some ex-Interplay veterans of the Fallout series.

Following the development of Fallout 2, Black Isle Studios became sidetracked with the Dungeons and Dragons licence. They developed Planescape: Torment (1999), Icewind Dale (2000) and Icewind Dale II (2002), but had always planned to return to the Fallout universe for a main series CRPG. Work on Van Buren, as the game was called in internal development documents (although it was planned to be finally called Fallout 3, the game is now referred to as Van Buren to avoid confusion with the actually-released sequel), began in 2001 or 2002. It was planned that the game would use an all-new engine featuring 3D character models. The same engine would also power the planned Baldur's Gate III, which Black Isle planned to develop internally after BioWare split off to make Neverwinter Nights and Knights of the Old Republic.

In 2003 Interplay collapsed due to financial problems. Technically, it continued to operate but it no longer had any capital to actually make games and Black Isle Studios was disbanded. Work on Van Buren was halted, despite the fact that the engine was complete, and roughly 50% of the game was complete, at least in an early alpha build. Staff from Black Isle would reform as two other studios, Obsidian Entertainment and Troika Studios, but as Interplay retained the Fallout licence they had to move onto other projects (Knights of the Old Republic II for the former and Vampire: The Masquerade - Bloodlines for the latter). Van Buren, and indeed Fallout overall, would appear to be dead.

The storyline for Van Buren would have been set in 2253, twelve years after the events of Fallout 2, and would have sprawled across Arizona, Utah, Colorado and Nevada. It would have seen the player, known as the Prisoner because he or she starts in jail (possibly an echo - conscious or not - of Bethesda's Elder Scrolls games), fall into a conflict between the New California Republic established in Fallout 2 and a new threat spreading from the east, Caesar's Legion, an army of Roman-inspired fascists who believed in racial supremacy and absolute law enforcement. The real threat would have turned out to have been a lunatic scientist called Victor Presper who was trying to both spread a virus and gain control of a still-functioning weapons platform to conquer the world.

Van Buren is very much non-canon, although a playable tech demo exists. Some elements of the game were repurposed in 2010 for Fallout: New Vegas.

Through four games Fallout had resolutely been a PC-only experience, but in its dying days Interplay hit on the idea of trying to get the franchise onto the PlayStation 2 and X-Box consoles. The result was an action-heavy game set in 2208 and featuring the player as one of three possible Initiates of the Texas branch of the Brotherhood of Steel (Cyrus, Nadia or Cain). Later in the game other characters become available, including the Vault Dweller, the protagonist of he original Fallout.

The game doesn't have much of a plot, instead pitting the player against waves of Fallout enemies in several locations. The enemy is a mutant leader who must be eliminated.

Unlike Tactics, which is considered at least partially canonical, Brotherhood of Steel is not only regarded as non-canon but some of the franchise's other creators have indicated they would be happy removing it from existence. It is arguably the total nadir of the Fallout franchise to date and can be safely ignored.

In mid-2004 it was unexpectedly announced that Bethesda Softworks had bought the Fallout intellectual property rights from Interplay for a large sum of money. Bethesda were best-known for their fantasy roleplaying series, The Elder Scrolls, and it was assumed that they would continue focusing on that series. The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind had been released in 2002 to a very positive reception, so the news that Bethesda had bought the Fallout IP was cautiously greeted with optimism by the fanbase. In early 2006 The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion was released to a generally positive response, but it was felt that the game had dumbed down somewhat from Morrowind. But Bethesda then announced that their next game would be Fallout 3, restoring life to a franchise that had appeared dead.

Released in 2008, Fallout 3 marked the biggest shift in the franchise's history. The game was now viewed from a first-person 3D viewpoint (an optional third-person mode is included), with combat taking place in real time. An optional VATS (Vault-Tec Assisted Targeting System) mode allows the player to pause the game and target enemy body parts in a nod to the turn-based gameplay of the original. However, the SPECIAL character development system remains in place.

The game takes place in 2277, on the 200th anniversary of the Great War. There is a dramatic shift in location for the game, which now takes place on the Eastern Seaboard of the former United States, in and around the ruins of Washington, DC, in what is called the Capital Wasteland. Bethesda wanted a total break from the original game and the freedom to develop new locations and characters without getting bogged down in too much continuity from the earlier games. Indeed, it has been rumoured that originally the game was planned to take place much earlier in the timeline, between the war and the original Fallout, thus explaining the still-ruined state of the post-apocalyptic world. However, a desire to include such Fallout stalwarts as Super Mutants, the Enclave and the Brotherhood of Steel eventually compelled them to move it to after Fallout 2, explaining the game's inconsistent worldbuilding. This rumour has never been confirmed.

The game has the player create a new character, the Lone Wanderer, who grows up in Vault 101, located just outside the capital. A prologue sequence shows the character growing up and their father, James, becoming more and more concerned about the world outside. In 2277 James leaves the Vault and goes outside, throwing the carefully-constructed society inside into paranoia. The Overseer charges the Wanderer with finding James and returning him home. However (and traditionally), the Wanderer soon becomes involved with local politics between bickering factions. These include the DC chapter of the Brotherhood of Steel, who have relaxed their technology-seizing ways and now serve as an army of techno-knights, and the (relatively) civilised settlements of Megaton (built around an inactive warhead) and Rivet City (built on a derelict aircraft carrier). Opposition comes in the form of various bands of Super Mutants, who are more aggressive and openly hostile than their western counterparts, and the Enclave.

It is eventually revealed that James has created Project Purity, a machine based in the Jefferson Memorial that can purify all of the water in the Potomac and surrounding hydration systems. This will restore life to the Capital Wasteland and allow civilisation to flourish again. However, the Enclave wants to combine the project with the FEV in order to poison and kill all mutated animals and life in the Wasteland, including Super Mutants, Ghouls and humans. Only the Enclave, whose citizens have lived in total isolation from the radiation outside their bases, will survive. The Wanderer has to choose which side to support. The canon ending assumes that the Wanderer will complete James's work and use the Water Purifier to save the Wasteland. In this ending the player joins forces with the Brotherhood of Steel, destroys the Enclave army with the help of a colossal war machine called Liberty Prime and uses the Purifier for its originally-intended purpose.

Rivet City, a repurposed aircraft carrier located in the ruins of Washington, DC.

The original ending to Fallout 3 required the player to sacrifice themselves (by passing through a radiation-filled chamber) to carry out the mission. However, this attracted tremendous criticism because the player would likely have allies (including Super Mutants and Ghouls) at this point who were immune to radiation. Bethesda retconned this ending with the Broken Steel expansion, allowing the player to survive the ending and then take part in a final assault on the Enclave.

Fallout 3 was massively well-received on release, attracting high review scores. Bethesda spent a substantial amount on marketing the game, emphasising that it was not necessary to play the previous games in the series, and trading on their reputation from the highly acclaimed Morrowind and Oblivion. The result was that Fallout 3 sold three million copies in its first month on sale, exceeding the combined lifetime sales of the previous games in the series. The game would go on to sell many millions of copies more on PC, X-Box 360 and PlayStation 3.

The general critical reception was very high, but the game had a cooler reception amongst hardcore, long-term Fallout fans. The primary criticisms related to an incompatibility between the game and the "post-post apocalyptic" setting of the previous games, in which the bombs had fallen 200 years ago and humanity had actually made some headway in rebuilding. Fallout 3 ignores this by having the city look like the bombs fell a few weeks earlier at best, using the Super Mutants (apart from one) as mindless monsters rather than the more nuanced characters in the original games and by recasting the Brotherhood of Steel as noble-intentioned knights of justice and honour rather than the arrogant technological conquerors of the previous games. However, the latter criticism was itself deemed unfair due to the previous games establishing that there are many chapters of the Brotherhood of Steel, each with its own variation on the organisation's core ideology.

More problematic for Fallout 3 are issues with much weaker writing compared to the previous games (especially of dialogue), a plethora of bugs (mostly unmentioned by the reviewers) and a very linear main storyline which does not react well to different player choices. However, the game is certainly very good and succeeded in its primary goal of bringing the franchise back to life and introducing all of the previous games to legions of new fans.

Liberty Prime assists the Lone Wanderer and the Brotherhood of Steel in assaulting the Enclave base at Adams Air Force Base.

Following Fallout 3's release, Bethesda released five expansions for the game in the form of downloadable content (DLC). Each expansion has its own new areas to explore, its own storyline and own themes. Thanks to the third DLC rewriting the end of the core game, the expansions can be played either before or after completing Fallout 3.

In Operation Anchorage the Wanderer discovers a hidden technological facility including a VR simulation of the Battle of Anchorage, an epic final assault by the Chinese forces in Alaska on the US positions. The player can gain experience for taking part in the VR simulation and also gets some pretty hefty equipment after completing it, including Power Armour. As the DLC can be played almost immediately after leaving Vault 101, it can somewhat unbalance the rest of the core game by making your character very tough. This DLC is noteworthy for being set mostly before the Great War in a completely new type of environment, but it is extremely linear and focused almost entirely on combat.

The Pitt sees the Wanderer accept a commission to travel to the ruins of Pittsburgh, where the vast steel mills now serve as a refuge for survivors. The Wanderer becomes embroiled in a battle between the slave-owning elite who run the Pitt, their servants and raiders. The Pitt has a renewed focus on melee combat over guns, giving the player some formidable weapons to use in close-quarters battle.

Broken Steel expands on the end of Fallout 3, allowing the Wanderer's adventure to continue after the end of the main game. It introduces some new side-quests in the Capital Wasteland, reflecting on the aftermath of the main game, but it also features a new area in the form of Adams Air Force Base, which is being used as a forward operating base by the Enclave. The Wanderer once again teams up with the Brotherhood of Steel and the massive warbot Liberty Prime to drive the Enclave from the DC area once and for all.

Point Lookout sees the Wanderer called away to Point Lookout National Park, located at the confluence of the Potomac and Chesapeake Bay to the south-east of the city. The area is infested with powerful enemies called "Tribals" and the Wanderer is commissioned by various locals to help defeat them. There is less emphasis on a core storyline in Point Lookout and more on exploration and salvaging.

Mothership Zeta is the final DLC for Fallout 3. It sees the Wanderer investigating a radio signal only to be abducted by an alien spacecraft. The existence of aliens in the Fallout universe has been strongly hinted at prior to this expansion, with the crashed remnants of what appear to by flying saucers locatable in both Fallout 2 and 3, and an "Alien Blaster" is one of the most powerful weapons in the franchise (although ammo for it is scarce). Mothership Zeta goes all-out on this idea, with the Wanderer waking up on the alien mothership discovering he or she is about to be probed. Escaping captivity, the Wanderer frees several other captives, some of whom have been in suspended animation for centuries, and forms a combat team consisting of themselves, a samurai, a Great War-era American soldier and a cowboy. They fight their way through the ship and eventually take control of it, shooting down a second alien ship when it intervenes. Subsequent to these events, the Wanderer can use the alien vessel as a base of operations and teleport at will between it and the Capital Wasteland.

Fallout 3 and its DLC were extremely successful, leading to Bethesda Softworks wanting to release a relatively rapid follow-up. However, the core development team at Bethesda had already started work on The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, meaning a new Fallout game was likely going to be at least five or six years away. A solution was found when the Fallout 3 developers suggested outsourcing development to Obsidian Entertainment. Obsidian consisted of many of the creators and programmers of Fallout, Fallout 2 and the cancelled Van Buren, so were already very familiar with the franchise. Bethesda also believed this would be a goodwill gesture towards fans who felt that Bethesda had "muscled in" on the franchise without involving the original creators.

Fallout: New Vegas plays in an almost identical fashion to Fallout 3, as it uses the same engine. The biggest difference is the introduction of iron sights, to allow for more authentic shooting, and a hardcore "Survival Mode" which makes carrying vast amounts of ammo more difficult and requires the player to eat and drink on a regular basis. More significant are the differences in tone, narrative and design philosophy, which all hew back much more closely to the original two Fallout games.

The game opens with the player controlling the Courier, a simple worker tasked with taking a message to the city of New Vegas in Nevada. Along the way the Courier is captured, forced to dig her (or his) own grave and is then shot in the head. Thanks to a passing robot, the Courier survives and is able to continue his (or her) mission. However, New Vegas and the surrounding Mojave Wasteland are in the grip of a terrible conflict between the New California Republic and Caesar's Legion, with Mr. House, the enigmatic ruler of New Vegas, caught in the middle. Other factions, such as the Brotherhood of Steel and a community of Super Mutants trying to live peacefully, are also involved in the crisis. Unlike the more straightforward factions of Fallout 3, New Vegas's sides are more conflicted, with each faction riven by internal divisions. There are also complicated backstories, with the Brotherhood and the NCR both opposing the Legion but refusing to work with one another due to a bloody military conflict between them in the recent past.

New Vegas is unprecedented in the series in how much freedom it gives to the player. The player has the freedom to kill everyone in the game apart from one robot vendor, regardless of how many quests this makes it impossible to complete. The game's storyline is divided into two parallel paths, one involving Mr. House's plans for New Vegas and the other involving the NCR/Legion conflict. The combination of these two paths, with the player able to choose between multiple states, gives the game dozens of different endings (compared to Fallout 3's two, both very similar). The game is also unusual in that it allows you to adopt a selfish route in which you solve the problems to your personal gain, seize control of an army of laser death robots and take over the Mojave Wasteland yourself as a dictator (benevolent or otherwise).

New Vegas had a mixed reception on release, not helped by launching with a large number of bugs not picked up on by Bethesda's Quality Assurance team. Players enjoyed the greater freedom and more flexible narrative of the game, as well as the much-improved combat, vastly stronger writing and dialogue and the much deeper companion characters (who had their own storylines and allegiances) but were put off by a much less welcoming opening area and set of quests, and perceived linearity. There were also criticisms that the game forced the player to pick sides at different times, closing off other storylines and quests (although this was also praised for encouraging replayability). Since its original release, and with the bugs fixed and the DLC added, the game has been critically reappraised and is now often cited as the single finest Fallout game to date.

The game sold extremely well on release, shifting almost twice as many copies as Fallout 3 did in its first month on sale. However, the game also attracted controversy when it was revealed that Bethesda witheld a bonus payment to Obsidian (worth approximately a million dollars) after the game failed to hit its metacritic review target by a single percentage point. This was especially deemed unfair since the review mark-downs were mostly down to the early bugs, the identification and fixing of which were Bethesda's responsibility rather than Obsidian's.

Despite this controversy, Obsidian and Bethesda have both said they enjoyed the collaboration and would be open to future joint endeavours.

Like Fallout 3, New Vegas had a number of expansions released for it. Unlike Fallout 3, these expansions are linked by a common (if subtle) storyline and each one is bigger than its Fallout 3 equivalents, with each one introducing a new area to explore, new PCs and in some cases new game mechanics.

Dead Money sees the Courier receive an odd radio signal leading to Sierra Madre, a casino and supporting town located out in the desert. Upon arrival, the Courier is captured by unknown forces, has their equipment seized and a bomb placed around their neck which will detonate if they do not cooperate with the instructions of the mysterious Elijah. Joining forces with other captives lured to the area, the Courier must outwit and defeat Elijah. Dead Money is very linear but is also remarkable for its tremendous sense of atmosphere, with eerie lighting and music not quite like anything else in the franchise.

Honest Hearts sees the Courier recruited to help guide a caravan to New Canaan, near the Great Salt Lake. However, the caravan is ambushed at Zion Canyon, Utah, and is destroyed. Escaping, the Courier meets the mysterious Burned Man who reveals that New Canaan has been laid waste by the White Legs, a primitive tribe of raiders allied to Caesar's Legion. The Courier has to choose to join forces with the Burned Man to help defend Zion and defeat the White Legs, or to allow the White Legs to destroy the survivors of New Canaan. Like FO3's Point Lookout, the storyline in Honest Hearts is fairly straightforward and light, with more of an emphasis on exploring the large canyon.

Old World Blues is set at the Big MT, a huge scientific research station in California. The Courier is abducted and brought to the MT by the Think Tank, a group of scientists who have transplanted their brains into robots and, in the process, have gone a bit crazy. The Think Tank initially take a hostile stance towards the Courier, but eventually agree to let him go. Unfortunately, one of their number, Dr. Mobius, has stolen the Courier's brain (their body is currently on remote control) and gone rogue. The Think Tank and the Courier join forces to defeat Mobius and retrieve the Courier's brain. This expansion is notable for massively raising the tech level of the game, giving the Courier access to a personal teleportation device as well as providing a high-tech base of operations he can teleport to at will from anywhere in the Mojave. The expansion also has a crazy sense of humour and is filled with references to things like Doctor Who, Star Trek and Red Dwarf.

Lonesome Road has the Courier receive a message from the Divide, a formerly prosperous community that was drawn into the conflict between the New California Republic and Caesar's Legion. Arriving at the Divide, the Courier discovers the place has been completely obliterated by multiple nuclear explosions, far more recently than the Great War. The Courier is drawn into the Divide, still inhabited by raiders as well as a dangerous new type of deathclaw, by messages from a man called Ulysses who seems to have unusual amounts of knowledge about the Courier. Eventually, in the final confrontation with Ulysses, it is revealed that the Courier themselves was inadvertently responsible for destroying the Divide when he (or she) delivered a package to the community some years before the job to New Vegas. In turn, Ulysses manipulated events to send the Courier to New Vegas and the fate they suffered there. Lonesome Road is very linear, but the game attempts to make a philosophical point about volition and the "chosen one" of video game heroes by casting the Courier as an unwitting, duped NPC in another character's personal story. How successful (or pretentiously wankish) that is varies by player, but it's an interesting viewpoint.

Fallout Shelter is a mobile-only game released for iOS and Android. The game casts the player as the Overseer of a Vault which has survived the Great War and is now expanding, attracting outsiders to the vault as well as growing the population internally and building new facilities whilst fending off attacks by raiders.

Fallout Shelter is a fun, free game which whiles away a couple of hours quite nicely. It's a highly repetitive game, however, and I would strongly recommend against spending any actual money on it. As a brief stopgap before Fallout 4 comes out, it's fine.

Fallout 4 is the latest game in the series, released on 10 November 2015. The game runs on the same engine as Fallout 3 and New Vegas (as well as Morrowind, Oblivion and Skyrim), but it has been upgraded to allow for more impressive graphical effects and improved real-time combat, including the limited use of jetpacks. VATS has also been adjusted so that it slows time down rather and freezing it altogether. The biggest change to the gameplay is that the player can now construct buildings and even entire settlements at will, adding defences and even attracting other people to stay in them.

Fallout 4 starts in October 2077, with the player choosing to create a male or female character. Unlike previous games in the series, this protagonist - the Sole Survivor - is fully voiced. The opening prologue has the character living in his or her house on the outskirts of Boston, Massachusetts, dealing with their partner and baby. A representative from Vault-Tec reminds the family that they can take shelter in the nearby Vault 111 if the worst should happen and war should erupt. Air raid warnings start sounding, so the family flee to the vault.

Unlike other vaults, which were generational affairs with people growing up and never seeing the sun before dying of old age, Vault 111 is equipped with cryogenic stasis pods, allowing the populace to ride out the period of radioactive contamination before emerging. When the Sole Survivor wakes up, however, they find the vault empty and the other people missing or dead. It is now 2287, 210 years after the Great War (ten years after the events of Fallout 3 and six after New Vegas). The Survivor makes her (or his) way into the ruins of Boston to find other people, survive and find out what's going on in the world.

As with previous games, Fallout 4 will see the player torn between several different factions. In this case, the Institute plays a major role. Located in or under the ruins of MIT, the Institute has been creating human-like robots known as synths for purposes unknown (this follows up on a side-quest in Fallout 3, in which such a synth flees to Rivet City). This has attracted the enmity of several factions who are suspicious of their motives and wish to destroy them. The player will likely have the ability to choose which factions to support whilst trying to discover what's really going on. The known factions include Ghouls, Super Mutants and a settlement called Diamond City.

Bethesda have confirmed that Fallout 4 will have expansions like Fallout 3 and New Vegas, likely for release in 2016 and 2017, but the scale and scope of these remains unknown.

The main Fallout fan community on the web can be found at No Mutants Allowed. Nukapedia, the Fallout Wiki is an essential source of information on the setting.